Nato turf war on airlift delays help for Darfur victims

An airlift to the crisis-torn Darfur region of Sudan will be co-ordinated from two different centres in Europe after Nato and the EU failed to resolve a squabble over control of the operation.

After weeks of rivalry between the two organisations, a meeting of Nato defence ministers finally agreed on enough of the details to allow the mission to be launched next month.

However, suggestions from France that the operation should be co-ordinated from one EU base in Eindhoven in the Netherlands - which is also used by Nato planners - was rejected by the US. Instead countries contributing to the airlift will chose whether they want to have their operations planned from Eindhoven under an EU banner or from Nato's military planning headquarters at Mons in Belgium.

"Since we were not going to do the operation together, it was not worth moving people from Mons to Eindhoven if they were not even going to sit together," one diplomat said yesterday.

France has offered support through the EU arm of the operation, while Germany says it is unclear whether its operation will be under a Nato or EU flag. The UK said that it plans to use both.

The rift in Brussels has been an embarrassment given the scale of the catastrophe in Darfur, where tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2 million forced from their homes during a conflict that is now in its third year.

Ahead of yesterday's meeting, Peter Takirambudde, the Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said: "The priorities are profoundly wrong if Nato and the EU let their turf battle come before protecting the lives of civilians."

That message appeared to strike home with figures within the alliance. The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said: "The situation in that region is appalling, and we must do all that is in our power, in co-ordination with other organisations starting with the EU, to assist the African Union."

The British Defence Secretary, John Reid, said: "The EU and Nato have come together despite all the history. This is such an important humanitarian mission that we would never be forgiven if we did not put aside rivalries."

Asked which banner German airlift would be co-ordinated under, the country's defence minister, Peter Struck, said: "This is completely irrelevant. One should simply agree to help. Who takes the lead in co-ordinating it is secondary."

Once in Africa, Nato's co-ordination with the EU will go through a single African Union-led cell in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, staffed with a small number of officials from all three organisations.

The main task is for Nato and European aircraft is to ferry African troops from their home bases to the affected areas. The AU, which is in charge of the peace-keeping mission, has ruled out Western troops helping in Darfur but in April called on Nato and the EU to help with logistical support.

That solution is deemed acceptable by Sudan, which welcomes Nato's help with logistics but also says that it will not accept any of the organisation's troops on its soil.

The AU is seeking to triple its existing presence to 7,700 troops by late September. Rwanda has pledged three extra battalions, Senegal, two, Nigeria, two and South Africa, one. These troops will be part of the AU effort to provide protection to the more than two million civilians who are at risk of attacks by the Janjaweed militia.

The US has said it will provide the airlift for the Rwandans and France for the Senegalese. Washington had wanted Nato to co-ordinate the entire effort, which could later include logistical support such as officer training. But Paris insisted its role would be part of an existing EU support package.

Although Nato and the EU have co-operated well over peace-keeping in Bosnia, the development of an EU defence capability has been highly sensitive issue in Washington.

Diplomats have played down the rift. One said: "It is not a big deal - this operation is not the Berlin airlift. It would have been better to have had one co-ordination centre. But it was more important to get a solution quickly."

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